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How to Describe a Big Man

You know that feeling. You’re writing a description of someone and you want to convey a sense of the person. John Le Carré did it beautifully in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, when George Smiley quoted Bill Haydon’s letter describing Jim Prideaux.
“He has that heavy quiet that commands. He’s my other half. Between us we’d make one marvellous man. He asks nothing better than to be in my company or that of my wicked, divine friends, and I’m vastly tickled by the compliment. He’s virgin, about eight foot tall, and built by the same firm that did Stonehenge”.
Okay, so perhaps that’s as good as it gets, but you have to try to compose your own version, probably more succinct. I recently used the description “Built like a brick shithouse”, which was shot down in flames by a good friend. So where do I go from there. Well, chance is everything. On the way back from IKEA today I got off the tram at Landsberger Allee, checked the S-Bahn map to find the most convenient way home and noticed that the stop for Treptower Park was just a couple of stations away, so I went and walked through the cool of the trees to the Soviet War Cemetery. War cemeteries are big places, thousands of graves of young men who died in battle. Treptower Park is not the biggest I’ve seen. The American cemetery above Omaha Beach in Normandy contains 9,387 graves. Nevertheless, Treptower Park comes close, with 7,000 graves. But the most imposing aspect of the cemetery is the War Memorial. The focus of the ensemble is a monument by Soviet sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich: a 12metre tall statue of a Soviet soldier with a sword holding a German child, standing over a broken swastika. According to Marshal of the Soviet Union Vasily Chuikov, the statue commemorates Sergeant Nikolai Masalov, who during the final attack on the centre of Berlin risked his life under heavy German machine-gun fire to rescue a three-year-old German girl whose mother had apparently disappeared. Here is a photo of the memorial. By the way, the little guy in the blue shorts at the foot of the statue  is me.
So, to get back to where I started saying, if you want to describe someone as big, you can use the expression He was built on the Same Lines as a Soviet War Memorial. Everyone will know what you mean.

BORDERLANDS – A Memory from 1992

The hard December sun shone in flat rays across the frost-whitened countryside. Just short of Dunshaughlin the car began to waltz. The road appeared dry. Did I have a flat tire, I wondered. Then it happened again. The car seemed to drift in line with the contours. That was no puncture, I decided. That was ice, black ice, invisible in the clear light of day. I let the speed drop off. Cars both ahead and behind me slowed to keep pace. I’d never experienced black ice, a consequence of living beside the sea, I supposed. No matter how much frost falls, the salt air will prevent it setting into ice to mess up traffic. I drove on, carefully.

My speed dropped from sixty miles per hour around Clonee to forty coming towards Navan. On a particularly bad stretch I dropped it to thirty. The only place I felt any confidence was where the road was lined with trees. Either because trees impede the fall of the dew on the road, or the heat from the wood creates a thaw, the wooded stretches were the only safe bits of road.

I drove around the by-pass at Navan. The earlier traffic seemed to have cleared the ice. Coming up the hill out of the town, though, the waltz returned. Sixty four kilometres to Cavan, the sign said. I re-set the odometer and drove on.

Borderlands. I’m thinking of you, Angela. I’m thinking of a house on a hill, with a window facing south. In December, the late afternoon sun shines straight in, flat beams of light hitting the wall hard and reflecting on to the bed. I dream of lying beside you, in the warmth and comfort of your arms. Again. I am a man of dreams, a man of wishes, wishing for what is not. Sometimes my dreams intrude on reality and reality intrudes on my dreams. Angela, you’re the lady who was meant for me. For all my life before we met, I was coming to you. When we’re apart you’re always in my heart and I’m always coming back to you.

It’s not easy. The last time we made love, I told you that you’re the one person I couldn’t live with and cannot live without. It was a Sunday afternoon. No winter sunshine then, just a grey October day, brightened by you, by your love, by making love. Afterwards we went for a pizza. Someday we’ll do it again.

Borderlands. It’s almost eleven o’clock. The sun is moving as high as it can in December. The day is bright, the sky clear, a blue dome marked only by the clear white line of a jet trail. The hard frost has frozen the moisture from the air and I can see for miles.

Cavan is hills, undulating like waves frozen in time, now white with frost. Usually when I come it is evening, the light in front as the sun descends. Today, the morning brightness shines from behind. Buildings and trees are not just pictures on the landscape, but hard and real against the slopes, big, solid farms and forests.

Driving slower helps me notice the landscape. As I leave Virginia, a man waves from his gate. I wave in return. If I was walking, I’d stop and talk, pass the time of day, then move on. Now I drive by, returning his smile.

Borderlands. I pass the quarry. Down the hill there are houses, smoke from chimneys rising straight into the clear still air. Not a breath of winds anywhere. It’s a good day to be alive. If you’re careful and don’t hit an unexpected patch of ice, you’ll live.

I pass the military barracks and the crystal factory. Cavan town is cluttered with Christmas traffic. Christmas trees for five pounds each. That’s a long way from fifteen pounds in Dublin. Christmas clubs now open. Everywhere, shops are buzzing for the festive season. On the far side of the town I pass the junction for Ballyhaise, then turn towards Enniskillen. There’s a lake on my right. On a Sunday morning a year ago, I flew back from Coleman’s Island in a helicopter. The pilot took us up to three thousand feet. It was a day like today and below was the land of lakes. Nothing but lakes. It seemed as though you could sail across Cavan. To the west we could see the Barnesmore Gap in Donegal, to the east the Cooley Mountains. It was a day like no other, when you could look right across the country and marvel at the clarity of the air. Any clearer and you’d see forever.

Borderlands. I’m coming to the border at Leggakelly. Cavan is a county that wears a beard of damp grass, dew dripping from trees, from rocks, from banks of earth at the side of the road. The morning sun sparkles on drops of water. Then there’s the Leggakelly Inn and the sign, Welcome to Fermanagh.

Borderlands. We’re in another country. The cars in front and behind continue towards Enniskillen. I’m turning right for the Christmas beer.

Borderlands. For me, the border has always been a combination of politics, guns, sex and excitement. Politics, because it was politicians who put a line on a map. They knew that a people divided would divert their energies to fighting to remove the border. That way they’d never  be a threat to the former colonial power. Politics, because I’d been brought up in a nationalist culture that sought to remove the line from the map, to wrestle that chunk of country away from the colonial power. The National Question, Republicanism, the Language, the great issues of the day while I was growing up.

Guns, because there were always people who would never accept that line on the map. They were happy to take up arms to remove it. Guns, because the people who guarded that border on behalf of the colonial power carried them. They were not our people. They were prepared to fight to keep that border there. It was their job, or they’d been told their lives would be poorer if the line wasn’t there. Guns, because the first time I ever went to Northern Ireland was on my way to Scotland with my granny. In the harbour town of Larne, I saw two policemen. They were talking, one leaning against his bike wearing a bobby’s helmet, the other with a flat peaked cap. But what made them stand out were the pistols on their hips. I’d never seen a policeman with a gun. When I commented on it, my granny told me to shush. Coming from an adult, her tone of fear surprised me. I was only eleven and considered adults omnipotent.

Sex. What’s sexy about a border, I hear you ask. Just that by crossing that line, you can buy Playboy and Parade and those other prick-teasing magazines that are banned in the good holy Catholic Republic of Ireland. I remember my first Playboy. The beautiful girl lay naked on the bed, her breasts small firm mounds. I was seventeen. She was a couple of years older. I loved that girl’s smile. I lusted after her body and I drained my own in contemplation of hers.

Sex, too, because there’s an excitement about the border. Things happen on a border that don’t happen elsewhere. A border attracts strange people. They do things people don’t do in the polite boring society of the hinterland. Order breaks down as people live their lives as they wish, not as they’re told. Laws are ignored, taxes are evaded, anarchy prevails in tandem with local values. Things are smuggled, things are traded and sex is just another commodity, given or taken for many reasons and in exchange for lots of things, like love, company, money, power, mercy.

And finally excitement. Why excitement? What’s exciting about a border? If you have to ask, you won’t understand. Everything is exciting. The politics, the thrill of an ideological frontier set in stone on a landscape. Something to be defended or demolished, depending on your point of view. The excitement of guns, of soldiers, of policemen, of intrigue, of the fascinating place that just is the border. And the excitement too of smuggling things home, like magazines, drink, fireworks and boxes of Kerrygold all those years ago.

Borderlands. It’s a thrill to be here, a wonderful place. I’m stopped at the filling station. I tell the girl to fill the tank, and she does. But the beer is expensive. This time the Budweiser is cheaper at home. The Single European Market is taking the border away. Now things are the same price everywhere. Soon there’ll be no point in smuggling. Ninety four pence a can here, eighty-nine pence a can in Ben Dunne’s. Why is it dearer here? Supply and Demand. There’s no St. Bernard’s to undercut the border shop. Better to buy your Bud at Ben’s than over the border. Now the border is irrelevant, and soon, where the economics goes, the politics will follow. If everyone is a citizen of Europe, then who cares whether they’re from the north or the south of Ireland? But the Royal Dutch is still cheap at fifty pence a can. Three trays, please. Sorry, we’ve no new Mars Bars, just the old ones. I’ll take two anyway.

I drop the beer into the boot of the car. The uniform is covered up. I get in and turn the car around, careful because frost has frozen the water in the potholes. True, this is Fermanagh, but Cavan is only a hundred metres away. Potholes are contagious, a disease that can cross borders.

Borderland. I drive back into the Republic of Ireland, back through Cavan town, back to the military barracks, and take over the Orderly Officer’s badges of office, the keys and the pistol. Loaded, of course. I settle down for the weekend, in command of the troops that go out to guard the borderland.

The Customer

A long time ago I wanted to be a DJ. Reluctantly Dave Baker gave me a job in a discotheque he was managing  called Le Disque in Molesworth Street. I worked on Saturday nights and in 1972 I moved up to become manager. We opened up during the day for lunches, soup, chicken and chips and a coffee for thirty pence. The business grew and on a good day we had fifty customers. It was like a conveyer belt and there was a real buzz to it. I got to know some of them well enough to say hello and exchange a few words about the weather. One was a very tall man with glasses. One of the girls saw him coming out of Leinster House and we wondered who he was. At the time there were daily demonstrations  outside the Dáil. Nothing changes. One day I was standing on the steps of the building looking towards Kildare Street, wondering if that day’s demonstration was going to get rowdy, when I saw the tall man coming towards me. He was deep in conversation with another man, but when he got close he looked up, saw me and said hello. The other man looked up to see who he was talking to. As I nodded to him, I realised it was Charlie Haughey. It was shortly afterwards that someone told me that our customer was PJ Mara. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Better Beginning – The Synopsis


Better Beginning is a contemporary thriller of 113,195 words, told in the first person, relating the story of Gary Dunne. Dunne is a former soldier in the Army Ranger Wing, the Irish equivalent of the SAS, now an Irish civil servant working for Europol.

The 1995 Srebrenica massacre by Serb soldiers and militias of thousands of Bosnians still reverberates in 2009. The US has engaged the perpetrators in their War on Terror, while Europe wants to put them on trial as war criminals. The Serbs refuse to go quietly and turn on the Europol investigators.

Two are murdered and an attempt is made on Dunne’s life, but his wife is killed instead. Dunne deals with the actual killers, but attempts to catch the leaders run into a dead end. Dunne retires to become a lotus eater on Spain’s Costa del Sol, living alone in the apartment in Marbella that he and his wife bought for their retirement.

However, in May 2012, the case comes alive and Paul Bulmer, Dunne’s former boss in the Department of Justice, arrives in Marbella to ask him to collect a package in Morocco and deliver it to the Europol investigation unit in Athens. Though reluctant to get involved, Dunne is swayed by the possibility of bringing his wife’s killers to justice. Briefed in Gibraltar by Ailish O’Connell, an MI-5 officer with whom he worked during the Falkland’s War, he travels by motorbike to Casablanca, where he meets Maria Taslova, a journalist who is following a story in relation to a CIA team in Morocco.

Over dinner in Rick’s Café, he meets Angela Murphy, the former love of his life, who is working for the Americans. The next day he drives the motorbike to Chichaoua, a town in the Moroccan desert, and collects the package.

On his way back to Spain, Dunne fights off violent attempts by both CIA and Serbs to retrieve the package. These events bring Dunne and Angela together and introduce Dunne to a son he never knew he had. Both Dunne and Angela realise that it may be possible to re-build their relationship, but only after Dunne has completed his task. The chase continues through Berlin to Athens, where Dunne discovers that the US is applying political pressure on the EU. The EU directs that the investigation be closed down.

At this point, the Serbs are cut loose by the Americans, but capture their CIA handler and his travelling companion in order to negotiate a severance deal with the Americans. Dunne discovers that the travelling companion is Angela and that both are being held prisoner by the Serbs on the Greek island of Milos. When the governments of Europe refuse to help him rescue Angela, he is obliged to go elsewhere for assistance.

He travels to Jerusalem, where he contacts a Shabak officer he knew from a couple of years earlier. He meets with her and her boss and raises the issue of war crimes dating back to World War Two, and one man in particular who is being sought by the Israelis. Dunne manages to convince them to become involved and together they launch an attack on the Serbs on Milos. This results in Angela being rescued, but she still seems unsure about Dunne. Nonetheless, as they part at the airport in Athens, it is suggested that Stevens may prevail over her doubts.

Unintended Consequences


When you do something, you have an idea what its effect is going to be. Often enough, though, things don’t work out the way you expect. No doubt when the Americans armed and trained Osama Bin Laden to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, they never envisaged that training being turned against them. In the same way, our support for minorities in the Balkans during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia produced some unexpected consequences as I discovered one sunny winter’s day in Athens.

“God is definitely a Greek,” Konstantina remarked.

“How do you make that out?” I asked.

The midday sun was low in the sky as we walked down the street. In the distance I could see the Acropolis standing stark against the clear blue sky.

“He knows the Greeks have no money to pay for heating, so he sends warm weather.”

I laughed. I couldn’t disagree. It was three weeks to Christmas and the temperature had risen to twenty one degrees.

We turned left into a narrow pedestrianised street.

“Here God has not been so good,” she remarked.

On the corner stood the shell of a half-built apartment block. It was one of many all over the city.

I stopped to look up at the unplastered walls. “It’ll get finished. All it takes is time.”

She nodded. “I hope so. The Crisis is having a very bad effect on this area.”

I could hear the capital letters in her voice. It was how every Athenian described the financial whirlwind that had devastated the world in 2008..

“It’s the same in Ireland,” I said. “Outside almost every town in the country, we have fields full of half-completed houses. Ghost estates, we call them.”

Konstantina nodded. “I know. I saw a programme on television about The Crisis in the rest of the world. There also places in Spain with unfinished apartment blocks.”

We continued walking towards the city centre.

“The problem for us,” Konstantina continued, as we passed another unfinished apartment block. “Is that this Crisis is happening in the middle of the city.” She paused to look around. “This used to be a good area of Athens. Now look what’s happening.” She nodded in the direction of two young men sitting on the steps of a derelict building.

I glanced in their direction, but kept walking. One of the men had his trousers down around his knees while the other massaged his thigh. A syringe with a needle in its sheath sat on the step.

Konstantina shook her head. “They can’t find a vein in their arms, so they have to try their legs. It’s a tragedy. A Greek tragedy,” she concluded.

“It’s a human tragedy,” I replied. “You think we don’t have people shooting up in the street in Ireland?”

She sighed. “I suppose it’s true.”

“Where do the drugs come from?”

She laughed bitterly. “From our friends in the north. All those people you were so worried about in the ‘nineties. And their persecutors.”

I frowned. “How do you mean?”

She stopped and looked at me, anger on her face. “You remember Kosovo? All those poor Albanians being murdered by the Serbs?”

I nodded. “I’ve heard of it.”

“They were the victims, so we let them into Europe. Now they are the big boys. The Albanian mafia smuggles heroin. The Serbs smuggle cocaine.”

She took off down the street again. I struggled to catch up.

“How can anyone in Greece afford drugs?” I asked, slightly breathless.

She shook her head derisively. “People can always get money for drugs. Street crime, prostitution, you know.”

I nodded. “Yes, I know.”

She smiled bitterly. “Of course, for the really poor, the criminals have made shisha, the austerity drug.”

I frowned. “Shisha. I’ve never heard of it.”

She shook her head. “A lot of people in Greece wish they’d never heard of it. It’s a kind of crystal meth. It’s called the ‘cocaine of the poor’.”

“Where does it come from?”

We waited for the traffic lights to change. “It’s synthetic,” she said. “It’s easy to make in home laboratories. Dealers sell it to people who can’t afford heroin or cocaine.”

The lights changed and we crossed the road. “And it’s cheap?” I said.

She nodded. “It costs €2 a time and it’s easy to get. It can be sniffed or injected. It’s spreading fast. A lot of users have died.”

I thought about that. “So we save the Albanians and they become the drug traffickers. The Crisis comes and they make a special drug for the poor.”

Konstantina smiled. “Unintended consequences, you call it?”

Gary Dunne


Gearóid ‘Gary’ Dunne was born in Blackrock, County Dublin, Ireland in 1950. Educated by the Christian Brothers, he went to University College Dublin to study engineering in 1968. Interested in military matters, and to earn money during the summer, he joined the FCA, An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil, or Local Defence Force, at the age of fourteen. He was tall for his age and everyone else in his platoon was under seventeen. Unusually, Dunne remained in the force.

By 1968 he was a Sergeant.

Just before his Leaving Cert, his father’s Uncle Bunky died. There were two military traditions in Dunne’s family. His grandfather had served with the British Army in Macedonia during World War One. Uncle Bunky had been in the GPO for the Easter Rising, though whether he’d done any fighting had never been established. However, Bunky had been awarded an IRA pension and was given a military funeral. Dunne was tasked to be a pall bearer. During the funeral proceedings, he was asked by Cathal Goulding, Chief of Staff of the IRA, to join the Republican Movement, which Goulding was trying to take in a socialist direction. Dunne wasn’t interested in small party politics and turned him down.

Later, he was asked by Seán MacStiofáin, IRA Director of Intelligence, to help train IRA volunteers. Recognising that involvement with an illegal organisation could jeopardise his career and  even land him in jail, Dunne turned him down too.

In the summer of 1969, Dunne dropped out of college. At a loss for something to do, he was rescued from the obscurity of a dead end job by the beginning of the Northern Ireland Troubles. The Irish Army was caught on the hop by events when, in August 1969, public order in Northern Ireland broke down. Consideration was given to sending the Irish Army across the border to protect the nationalist community. The problem was that the army’s best troops and equipment were serving with the United Nations in Cyprus. The British Army’s threat assessment suggested that the most the Irish Army could put across the border was one battalion and half a squadron of obsolete Landsverk Armoured  Cars, whereas British strength in Northern Ireland was 2,500 soldiers. No Irish units crossed the border and the British Army was deployed on the streets to restore order.

In response the Irish government expanded the army, encouraging members of the FCA to join the Permanent Defence Force. FCA NCO’s were placed on PDF potential NCO courses.

Gary Dunne went from being a reserve sergeant to PDF corporal by January 1970. At this point, he was involved in events that culminated in the Arms Crisis and the trial of Charlie Haughey on charges of conspiracy to import arms. However, Dunne managed to remain clear of the fall-out and when his first three year term of engagement ended in 1972, he was a sergeant. Encouraged to sign on again with a choice of a potential officer’s course or a selection course for the Army Ranger Wing, the Irish Army’s equivalent of the SAS, he chose the ARW.

Being keen on personal fitness and careful of his health and diet, he passed easily. Service with Rangers brought a new dimension to Dunne’s army service, but towards the end of his term, his personal life fell apart as he broke up with his girlfriend, Angela Murphy.

Although he was offered a potential officer course if he signed on for a third term, he left the Army and the country in September 1975.



It was a bright sunny morning in May 2012 when I drove off the ferry from Tarifa, in Spain,into the port of Tangier. After doing battle with the Moroccan bureaucrats to import the motorbike, I drove along the seafront, the Yamaha 750’s engine purring softly. I followed the signs through the city to the motorway. Traffic was light and I stayed well within the speed limit, keeping a look-out for traffic cops. Assume they’re everywhere.

You’ll never be wrong, because they are. This was confirmed when I passed a clump of trees that overhung the road. Standing in the shadows were two policemen with a radar gun.

The motorway was built on a raised embankment, which meant I could see into the open country. Morocco has its own version of ghost estates, fields full of unfinished apartment blocks. Another town, another property bust. In the lush farmland, ripening green fields of grain swayed in the breeze. Farmers ploughed their fields, some driving tractors, some walking behind oxen. In flooded fields, workers planted rice. In their straw hats, they looked like blacks picking cotton in the deep south of America a hundred years ago. A land of contrasts.

Going south, the air got warmer. Driving the bike at a hundred and twenty kilometres per hour was like being in a gale. The noisy, buffeting wind was mostly hot and my jacket bulged with the air blowing up my sleeves. I crossed a wadi, a wide area of low ground where a river snaked lazily to the sea. Then the landscape changed and the road was lined with trees on either side. Power lines crossed overhead on poles topped with stork’s nests. After a hundred miles I pulled into a service area. I filled the tank and enjoyed a lazy cup of coffee. I was the only European.

My fellow travellers eyed me curiously. They seemed friendly. I was surprised, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been, to find that there was a mosque beside the café.

Shortly afterwards the autoroute joined the bypass around Rabat. I passed a glossy glass-fronted IT centre called Technopolis. Further on I passed a signpost for Temara. I was especially observant of the speed limit, not least because the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, a Moroccan intelligence agency known for human rights violations, operates an extrajudicial detention facility, or black site, financed by the US Central Intelligence Agency at Temara. Despite having no legal authority to arrest or detain suspects, the DST holds and interrogates individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism-related activities. Some of them have been arrested in other countries by the CIA as part of their War on Terror and flown to Morocco on the CIA’s aircraft. Because there is no legal authority under US law for the involvement of the CIA in the operation of black sites, the issue remains controversial and the UN has begun to investigate. However, I passed by safely and drove on to Casablanca.

Traffic was heavy, but eventually, I found the hotel I’d booked and checked in. In the last couple of days I was reminded of driving past Temara by the publication by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence of the executive summary of its report on the CIA’s interrogations of suspected foreign terrorists in the wake of 9/11, some of them described as torture. Reactions from politicians vary between former Vice President Dick Cheney saying “The report is full of crap” to Republican Senator John McCain’s observation that “It is a thorough and thoughtful study of practices that I believe not only failed their purpose – to secure actionable intelligence to prevent further attacks on the U.S. and our allies – but actually damaged our security interests, as well as our reputation as a force for
good in the world.”

You pays your money and you takes your choice. The Washington Post points out that the report does not include Morocco, which was not a CIA-controlled facility.

Pirates & Magic Lamps

2015-11-11_0912When I was growing up, there was a trunk in a shed at the back of our house. It resembled a prop from Pirates of the Caribbean, large musty dome lidded and strengthened, with iron bands. It was the repository for family bric-a-brac, useless items no longer tolerated inside the house. On wet afternoons with the light drawing in, I liked to rummage the contents, always hoping to unearth some curiosity. Apart from its impressive bulk, the trunk had one of other overwhelming feature,  smell.

The unmistakable malodour of must and mothballs was enough to bring tears to your eyes. I wondered how something as innocent looking as a hard sweet could smell so foul. My grandmother was a great believer in the power of mothballs. In the overheated church, you could almost see the smell rising from her winter coat. Thinking back, this was tame in comparison with the other organic fragrances that must have emanated from the overfilled agricultural base congregation of our big church.

But back to the trunk itself. In the course of one of my expeditions, I found a fresh novelty. In an overlooked corner  was a small glass globe. It was as if I had uncovered Alladin’s magical lamp. The globe contained in image of the Virgin Mary with hands joined in prayer and eyes upcast to the heavens. The magic was that you could make the Virgin’s world come alive with snowfall by inverting the globe. Wondrous snowflakes cascaded all about her blue mantled shoulders whenever I tilted my hands. So why in the ruins of a bombed out church in Berlin on a winter’s day over half a century later should I recall this religious novelty?

The answer? I was looking at the original image of the Madonna of Stalingrad.

It hangs adjacent to the ruined shell of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. This building has been left symbolically shattered, its broken spire and entrance hall remain as they were following the Allied bombing raid on the night of 23 November 1943. It has become a place of memorial reflection and the adjoining church the perfect space to house the Madonna of Stalingrad. The image is that of a Madonna and child. The mother has wrapped her infant son inside her cloak. The baby sleeps. Their foreheads touch. The cloak is that of a traveller, serviceable, warm and woven from one piece of cloth.

Her bare feet protrude from beneath it, strong and square. They are the feet of a woman who has walked the roads of the world. They are the feet of a mother who will carry her sacred child as long as she is breath in her body. The image is rendered in charcoal and measures 3′ x 4′. It is drawn on the back of a Russian map of the city Stalingrad. You can see the folds and creases of the original document. The picture was executed on Christmas Day in 1942 in a foxhole bunker during the Battle of Stalingrad. In its right-hand margin are printed the words Licht,  Leben, Liebe,  light, life, love. The drawing was made by Kurt Reuber, a German Army physician.

He wanted to create something that might reawaken the spirit of long lost Christmases for his surviving comrades.

There were seven of them in that mortar position. They had nothing to give each other. No gifts. Bread and ammunition were the finest presents they might hope for. The calendar told those who bothered to consult it that this was Christmas Day. The pewter sky augured snow and towards evening delivered on that promise. The glow from distant burning buildings mocked their frozen fingers. In spite of numbness in his hands, low light and his presence in this place of Purgatory, Kurt Reuber  managed to complete his drawing. He did it so that his comrades soldiers would have a spiritual icon to reclaim their minds on the sacred day.

In a letter home, he wrote of his companions response. “They stood as if entranced, too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall, and read the words light life love.” Doctor Roy Reuber’s famous drawing survived the war. It was flown outof Stalingrad on the last transport plane to leave the encircled German Sixth Army. I looked at it and was held captive by its simplicity, purity and compassion. I think about these men’s worlds were turned upside down and how the snow fell soft and clean all around the charcoal image of the Madonna in the bunker outside Stalingrad on Christmas night. How childishly foolish now seems my own delight when I tilted the glass globe and made snow for the Virgin Mary.

The Spy Who Inspired Me


In 1964, I was fourteen. Someone gave me a copy of Moonraker and it hit me like a star-shell. When I’d started reading years before, stories about World War Two were all the rage.

There were comics like The Lion, The Tiger, The Victor and The Hotspur, all with war stories. I had devoured W. E. John’s books about Biggles. I discovered James Bond was, in ways, just like Biggles, but with girls. Sadly, the flow of books stopped when Ian Fleming died in 1964, just as the James Bond film phenomenon was taking off. Surprisingly, even though almost everyone has seen at least one James Bond movie, very few people have actually read any of Fleming’s books.

At the time, there was a rash of copycat writers turning out similar stories. A mature version of Biggles was produced by Gavin Lyall in The Wrong Side of the Sky, published in 1961.

Lyall’s writing also contained overtones irony and understatement found in the novels of Raymond Chandler,. Lyall produced seven novels in this genre, the last, Judas Country, published in 1975. Between them, Ian Fleming and Gavin Lyall provided me with the inspiration to write my own first novel.

I’d been trying to write a novel since I was ten years old. They were all the same, war stories, spy stories, detective stories, the kind of thing adolescent boys read. My first attempt featured a character based on the hero in the comic cartoon, I Flew With Braddock. I managed to write about ten pages, but then lost the copybook it was written in. Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, as Thomas Gray said.

Eventually, in 1977, I sat down to write and managed to complete first novel. Since then, I’ve managed to complete seven novels, along with a few nearly past the finishing post efforts.

Sadly, none of them reached the standard I’d be happy to publish. About three years ago, I went back to the Ian Fleming novels to see what it was that made them work. Fleming was the son of a British officer, Major Valentine Fleming, who was killed in France in 1917.

Being of a rich banking family, Ian Fleming was a member of the establishment. Educated at Eton, Sandhurst  and various European universities, he got a job as a reporter for Reuters, covering the 1936 trial of six British engineers in Moscow on charges of spying. From there he moved on to become a stockbroker, at which he failed miserably. With the outbreak of World War Two, his mother then arranged for him to take the position of assistant to the Director of Naval intelligence, Vice Admiral John Godfrey. After the war, he worked as Travel editor for the Sunday Times.

His contract allowed him to spend three months every year, usually the winter, in the house he built in Jamaica, called Goldeneye. There in 1952 he wrote Casino Royale, the first of the James Bond books, basing it on his wartime and travel experiences. He went on to write a total of fourteen novels, setting them in exotic locations.

Who better to take inspiration from, I decided.

I read all the books again, taking notes as the framework for a new novel took shape. My own career was a help. I had spent almost forty years as a civil servant in the Department of Justice, both in the Department itself and in the courts. I also served for thirty three years in the Reserve Defence Force, or the FCA as it used to be known, beginning as a recruit and finishing as a captain. This enabled me to base my fiction on experience, both in terms of characters and events.

You can re-cycle anything, even a War Criminal


I find that ideas for stories seep into my head in a subliminal way rather than my sitting down trying to dream something up. When I was replacing my computer, a 1999 Dell that had served me well, I was going to bring it to an electrical shop for re-cycling. I asked a friend about clearing the hard drive and he told me to take it out and hit it with a hammer, or put in a hot oven so that all the plastic elements melt. I chose the oven.

The less said about the smell, the better. It’s a memory, but on a clear day I can still smell burning plastic in the kitchen. Around the same time, a programme appeared on BBC about people’s bank account details being sold in Nigeria. Apparently local computer whizz kids were able to recover internet banking data stored on hard drives of recycled UK PCs. Experts on the programme said that simply deleting files was not enough and that before disposing of computers, hard drives should be wiped using specialist software. Alternatively, the hard drives should be removed and destroyed.

In 2009, Carla Del Ponte, who was the United Nations’ Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), published a book, Madame Prosecutor, which claimed that, though Serbia’s government had promised ICTY prosecutors that war criminals would be extradited to The Hague if arrested, “the Americans intervened and stopped the action”. She also alleged that Ratko Mladic was hiding under the protection of the French intelligence services. Remembering that the US employed Nazi war criminals as spies against the Soviet Union after World War Two, it was a short step to imagining that elements within the CIA might have employed Serb war criminals in the War On Terror.

After all, the War On Terror’s principal enemies were Muslims, and the Serbs had conducted a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims. Moreover, there had been Arab fighters in the Bosnian War who went on to take part in Al-Qaida sponsored operations, so why not use the Serbs against them? Of course, the Americans wouldn’t shout about employing Serb war criminals. As long as they got results, who cared? And if the Serbs were killed or captured, they were deniable.

Pulling all these threads together, I wondered what would happen if a CIA man’s computer was removed before being cleared as part of a programme to upgrade his office’s machines.

If the computer was re-cycled to Nigeria, the hard drive might be removed, its contents discovered and then sent to Europe. The CIA would launch a hunt to get the disc back, while the Europeans launched a hunt for the war criminals. Throw in a retired civil servant living in Marbella, a love story going back forty years, a chase through Spain, Gibraltar, Morocco, Berlin and Greece, with a lot of nice restaurants and good hotels, and a year later I’d finished the first draft of Better Beginning.